Beneath Washington, D.C., a dimly lit web of passages weaves throughout row after row of eerie wall graves, recalling early Christian burials in the catacombs of ancient Rome. The subterranean complex is located underneath the Franciscan Monastery of the Holy Land in America, with a Dan Brown-style entrance near the main altar and the bones of a boy martyr inside.
However, the Catacombs of Washington, D.C., aren’t quite as ancient as the name would suggest, and all but one of the graves are totally fake. They were built at the turn of the 20th century by a well meaning group of Franciscan monks who wanted to create a facsimile of the Holy Land for North Americans who couldn’t afford the trip overseas.
These catacombs do have an official Papal endorsement and contain one very real skeleton of what looks to be a seven or eight-year-old child. Legend holds that the bones belong to a martyr from the second century and made their way to D.C. from the Catacomb of St. Callistus in 1929.
Above the catacombs the Franciscans also brought together a sort of spiritual amusement park, complete with replicas of the tomb of Jesus and numerous other altars, chapels, and grottos from the Old World. Visitors can complete a veritable world tour of Roman and Middle Eastern religious shrines in a single afternoon.
A Roman architect named Aristides Leonori produced the design for a mini-catacomb based on measurements and photographs of the originals in Italy. Three architecturally distinct sections represent various chapters from early Christian lore.
Unlike the Roman originals, which were scraped from the earth and soft rock by hand two millennia ago, the D.C. catacombs were cast from aggregate cement and come in at a spry 120 years of age. They’re also much smaller in scale: essentially three interconnected arcades, as opposed to the hundreds of miles that stretch beneath Rome.
Know Before You Go
The friendly staff are happy to escort you through from 10 am to 3 pm Monday-Sunday.
- The monastery tour guides, signs and a Guide to Art and Architecture of the Franciscan Monastery